Cooperation between Russia and China received great impetus after 2014 events, when the international condemnation of the annexation of Crimea pushed Russia to look eastwards, strengthening relations with the other powerful regional actor: China. Beijing has become a strategic partner for Moscow not only in the political and diplomatic fields, but also in the energy and military spheres, where these countries have begun to cement their security cooperation in different and specific domains, such as military exercises, arms sales, Arctic security and cybersecurity.
Given the strategic importance of this latter issue and the difficulties in addressing this modern threat, Russia and China have showed willingness to cooperate in the field of cybersecurity: in June 2018, Russia hosted an international conference on Information Security - organized among others by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) - which was attended by members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS and CSTO. Moscow proposed the creation of a regional center for the monitoring of and reaction to information and cyber threats.
The effects of this enhanced security and military cooperation between Russia and China are also evident in Central Asia, where Moscow and Beijing are engaged in preventing the spread of instability linked to the threat of international terrorism and jihadist extremism. Terrorism also worries Central Asian countries, which are eager to develop a framework of wider cooperation with China and Russia, mainly in multilateral terms but also through enhanced bilateral relations.
The SCO formally remains the main regional security forum of cooperation involving Russia and China: their regular organization of and participation in joint anti-terrorism military exercises highlights Sino-Russian involvement to provide security in Central Asia. The “Peace Mission 2018” has been particularly significant because all SCO member countries - included the new members, India and Pakistan - sent their troops for this joint military exercise and even Uzbekistan decided, after 8 years, to send some observers.
Afghanistan's instability and the presence of international and regional terrorists linked to the Islamic State are perceived as the main threats affecting the regional security architecture.
Russia fears instability in its southern border that could undermine the Eurasian Economic Union and the economic integration process in Central Asia, also worrying about the weakness of Tajikistan’s ability to contain threats deriving from Afghanistan
China is also worried about the potential spreading of instability in the region that could affect the autonomous Xinjiang region. Moreover, a condition of regional instability will negatively influence the development and implementation of the geo-economic corridors under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative, which mainly cross Xinjiang and Central Asia before reaching EU markets.
Within the SCO framework, Russia supports China’s recent intention to increase the role of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group to promote a reconciliation process and resolution of the Afghanistan conflict.
As well as developing broad security cooperation to fight their common threats, Russia and China have also autonomously undertaken new initiatives aimed at achieving their security goals.
Concerning Central Asia, China has never expressed the ambition to provide security in the region, recognizing the role of Russia as the main regional security provider, according to a kind of “division of labour” within which China privileges the economic dimension. Russia indeed appears to be the only actor that can provide security in the region, also because Moscow possesses two military bases that contribute to preserving its military presence in the post-Soviet space.
In spite of China’s reiterated adherence to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, the size of the BRI investments and the realization of huge infrastructural projects crossing Central Asia could push China to intervene in the region, if there are concrete threats to its strategic interests: China’s white paper on military strategy published in 2015 defines the protection of interests abroad as a strategic task.
Considering that the existent regional security organizations (CSTO and SCO) proved unable to provide security, China has implemented bilateral military cooperation with all five Central Asian countries: moreover, in 2016 China launched an interesting initiative to increase security in Afghanistan and in the region, the “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism”, which includes Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and is the first security bloc in the region that excludes Russia.
Parallel to its engagement with China in multilateral security initiatives, Russia, too, has recently developed bilateral security cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are not members of CSTO, even if the organisation still remains Russia’s favourite forum to deal with security issues in the region.
The military cooperation with Uzbekistan appears particularly significant: since 2017, Uzbekistan can purchase military equipment from Russia at prices close to Russian domestic prices and these countries held their first joint military exercises since 2005. Moreover, Russia and Uzbekistan signed a strategic cooperation deal in the defence sector, which allows military aircraft of both countries mutual access to one another’s airspace.
Russia sees the Eurasian region as an exclusive sphere of influence to protect from external interferences by providing security, so Russia could be suspicious about Chinese military involvement in the region and its potential ambitions. However, China will need security conditions and protection to preserve the expensive infrastructure built under the BRI umbrella, so Beijing’s military engagement is likely to grow.
Until now, security cooperation between Russia and China has been based on the current convergence of strategic interests to achieve the stabilisation of Afghanistan. After reaching this goal, it is predictable that Sino-Russian military cooperation will be revised. Moscow is now in a “wait and see” position because it is not strong enough to react against Chinese initiatives, yet it will likely perceive China’s growing military presence in Central Asia as a threat to its strategic interests.